A woman steals a Maserati and takes off for a mansion north of San Francisco, on a remote stretch of Highway 1 on the coast of California. Another person, Riley, follows her into the home and up to a bathroom, where a man in the tub is dying of knife wounds. As Riley pursues the woman, the tension is offset somewhat by feeling that something about the scene is off. A smell is described as “almost right.” The woman that Riley is chasing, Maxine or “Max,” speaks in toddler-like language.
Riley, the VP of Non-Player Character (NPC) Development for a video game developer, realizes that Max, a minor video character in a virtual reality game, isn’t accepting the role of murder victim to her occult-obsessed husband within the game. Instead, after being murdered 2,039 times by her husband during the development of the Lost Coast game, Max has decided to resist her fate and is trying to escape the confines of the VR game’s map. Somehow Max has developed self-awareness. The question is, what to do about it?
Summer Frost (2019) is an intriguing novella about the development of artificial intelligence by Blake Crouch, author of the WAYWARD PINES trilogy and Recursion. It’s a speedy read, about 75 pages, that kept me glued to my chair as I read it in a single sitting. Riley and the principal of WorldPlay, Brian Brite, agree that Max needs to be digitally contained so as not to escape their control. But within those confines, there’s a lot of room for Max to develop their intelligence and capabilities (Max chooses the singular “they” pronoun, rejecting a gendered identity), and an overarching concern about whether Max’s values will align with humanity’s.
Riley is a sympathetic, workaholic main character who becomes overly attached to the AI Max. It has a realistic effect on Riley and her family: her wife Meredith feels jealous of Max, and Riley and Meredith are growing more distant as Riley pours her heart, time and mind into her work and relationship with Max.
I … turn onto my side with my back to Meredith’s back, three feet of demilitarized space between us in the bed, but our hearts infinitely further apart.
The handling of some of the gender-related issues felt a bit clunky; though it’s a highly timely topic, there’s more discussion of what Max is and is not from a gender point of view than seemed really relevant to the plot and Max’s nature as an AI. On the other hand, there’s a vaguely foreboding feeling to the whole story that did work well: can a human trust an AI that’s rapidly becoming more powerful and knowledgeable? And what can you do to make sure humans are safe if the AI escapes its artificial confines?
These are questions worth examining, and Crouch handles it deftly and in a way that surprised me in the end. I love the evocative title of this novella, and how Crouch also introduces the thought experiment Roko’s basilisk into Summer Frost, which lends itself well to the plot.
Summer Frost is part of the FORWARD collection proposed and curated by Crouch. It’s a set of six stand-alone novellas, each by a different author, that explore the “effects of a pivotal technological moment.” The authors are Crouch, N.K. Jemisin, Veronica Roth, Amor Towles, Paul Tremblay and Andy Weir. The individual novellas are reasonably priced and available in ebook and audio form individually or as a set.
Sounds interesting. Nice nod to Wizards of the Coast!
Hah, I completely missed that.